Plastic People of the Universe: “Moucha V Rannim Pive” (Hovezi Porazka, 1983)

Václav Havel died on December 18th. This had no direct impact on my life, but I still felt the loss.

Havel may have been the best politician of the 20th Century. By “best politician” I don’t mean the best debater or the one who got his way or convinced the most people to follow him—I mean that he comported himself during his time in politics in a manner that should be the gold standard for politicians.

He was the first post-Communism president of Czechoslovakia, and when Slovakia’s intent to separate from the Czech Republic became clear, Havel was opposed to the idea. He could have behaved like so many other presidents. He could have brought in the army. He could have rolled tanks into Bratislava.

Instead, he didn’t even meddle in the democratic processes that made Slovakia independent. He let it happen, because he knew that even though he didn’t want it to happen it was going to, and that to push back would escalate things. There were no flames or shots fired when Czechoslovakia broke up—Havel resigned so he wouldn’t have to preside over the event. There were no flames or shots fired because Havel was a reasonable man.

Havel was an artist. He wrote plays and books. He was part of the Czech underground during Communism. His plays were banned in his homeland after the Soviet invasion in 1968, and he wasn’t allowed to leave the country to see foreign productions. He didn’t shy from a fight, though—he went to prison multiple times for his public dissent.

One of the acts of dissent that got him in trouble was Charter 77, a document he wrote in collaboration with other dissidents criticizing the government’s human rights abuses. It was written partly in response to the imprisonment of the members of Plastic People of the Universe, Prague’s most prominent rock band. The group was essentially imprisoned for noncomformity—some of their lyrics were the work of banned writer Egon Bondy, their hair was long, they used obscenities in their lyrics, and they played illegal shows.

I think that when a leader comes from this kind of background, it gives him certain perspective that many politicians, coming from backgrounds of privilege, the study of political science, or other usual roads to power great and small, simply lack. The man wrote plays. He understood irony and recognized it in his own life.

Havel never wanted to be a politician. He was hoisted by his own petard into the role. I think this is the ideal kind of leader—the kind of man who doesn’t want power, but does want what’s right.

We haven’t had many of them. Václav Havel was one. His loss is a loss for everyone.